Collecting Data When the Going Gets Tough

In March 2017, two days before I was supposed to leave for Northern Nigeria to set up a final round of survey data collection for an evaluation, two German expats were kidnapped from a village in the area and held for ransom. My role as an analyst on the multi-donor AgResults initiative – a project to encourage and reward high-impact agricultural innovations that promote global food security, health and nutrition – was to supervise training and the beginning of field work with the local survey firm we hired to ensure that we received clean, usable data.

We met with our security team several times, and they gave us satellite phones and guidance on areas to avoid, including instructions to stay in the city. Though I was assured the city itself was safe and peaceful, this trip would clearly be quite different than my previous survey launches. Conducting field work in an insecure and high-threat climate produces challenges that require adaptation and contingency plans.

While “security threat in Nigeria” might elicit thoughts of Boko Haram, in some areas of the North the largest threats actually stem from disputes over land between local tribes. Climate change is pushing a group of northern nomadic herders, the Fulani, south in search of land for their cattle to graze. However, farmers who own this land are having their crops ruined by the cattle grazing. Though complicated by external political factors, these basic livelihood conflicts have led to violence.

Plan for the Unexpected

We made several contingency plans to account for possible obstacles, all of which we ended up using. One plan included giving the survey firm a list of villages to survey with more villages than we needed, because we anticipated some would not be reachable. But as field work continued, the number of unreachable villages grew: some were abandoned, or villagers had relocated to neighboring villages. We ended up asking the survey firm to contact local farmers’ associations to find other villages with eligible farmers to supplement our sample.

Normally when researchers are conducting a survey, the home office manager travels to the field to train the survey firm and works with them to pilot the survey. The enumerators practice administering the survey to villagers who are similar to those involved in the study. The manager from the home office team observes and gives feedback on what the enumerators did or didn’t do correctly. This important training exercise mimics actual field work as closely as possible. However, with the risk of kidnapping much higher in surrounding villages than in the city, we could not travel to the villages and had to invite farmers to the hotel in the city to observe interviews with them. Luckily, we found some farmers who were amenable.

Because I could not travel freely, I spent three weeks within the confines of hotels. Every time we traveled between hotels, we were required to take a car. A simple walk down the street during a rare free hour was not allowed. This reduced mobility meant that my management capacity was limited. Over the course of fieldwork, I had to rely heavily on our survey manager to assess threat levels and to travel and manage where I could not. As an American consultant who has lived and worked in Nigeria for several years, she was an invaluable asset to our team and was accustomed to cultural norms, threat levels and work styles within the country.

While staying in town helped keep us out of harm’s way, our team still faced security issues. At the last minute, we had to change the villages that piloted the survey because of kidnappings in those areas. Finally, though we had a tight timeline to beat the rainy season, we factored extra buffer days into the schedule. We ended up using them — and more — as we encountered unexpected issues.

Despite these obstacles, we successfully completed our field work in May. Nigeria is an interesting, challenging place to work with no shortage of learning experiences. If you plan to conduct a household survey in a similarly insecure climate, I urge creating advance contingency plans and allowing adequate buffer time. Oh, and a healthy dose of flexibility and patience doesn’t hurt either!

Kate Hausdorff joined Abt in 2016 and immediately became a member of the AgResults team working on the Nigeria pilot evaluation and preparing for endline data collection.  
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